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UH Libraries Special Collections Acquires Ben DeSoto Papers

Performing & Visual Arts

The University of Houston Libraries Special Collections is proud to announce its acquisition of the Ben DeSoto Papers. Ben DeSoto is a Houston native with a photography career spanning over three decades, and his collection documents Houston’s art, history, and culture.

The Ben DeSoto Papers document the Houston art scene and capture the images of hundreds of Houston’s visual artists. DeSoto’s collection also contains photos of hundreds of musicians and performances at many now-defunct Houston venues, including Mary Jane’s, The Axiom, and The Island. The latter venue is the subject of DeSoto’s documentary Night at the Island, which is currently in production. DeSoto describes The Island as

. . . the first venue in Houston where Punk Rock music was heard . . . From 1978 to 1982, the place was a home away from home for many and part of underground scene. Butthole Surfers, Black Flag, Big Boys, The Dicks shared the stage with locals Mydolls, Judys, AK 47, The Hates, and many others.

DeSoto’s collection contains images from these and many other musicians along with photographs of the Houston street skaters Urban Animals, many of which were exhibited at the Glassel and the Houston Center for Photography in the late 1980’s, and the Menil in 1998.  Additionally, the collection contains personal and family documents.

Judy Pruitt at 18 years old, under the Pierce Elevated, Christmas week 1988.

Judy Pruitt at 18 years old, under the Pierce Elevated, Christmas week 1988. Photo courtesy of Ben Desoto.

Perhaps most importantly, the Ben DeSoto Papers document DeSoto’s life’s work the Understanding Poverty Project in which he allows us into the daily lives of Houston’s homeless and poor. DeSoto explains that a chance encounter with Judy Pruitt in 1988 led to a decades-long collaboration in “sharing to the public an understanding of underlying causes of chronic homelessness.” Desoto also documented Ben White’s life for over thirty years. Like Pruitt, White battled the cycles of homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty. What is unique to this project is that DeSoto documents the experiences and struggles of Pruitt, White, and their families—over such an extended period of time. Currently, DeSoto is working on Quiet Storms of Reform–what he calls a “poverty solutions documentary film.”

DeSoto received numerous awards during his long career at the Houston Post, including the

  • Fuji Fine Arts Award for Contributions to Society (1987)
  • National Headliners, Outstanding Feature Photography (1989)
  • Inter American Press Association, First in Photography (1990)
  • Texas Correction Association Award for Media Excellence for “Documenting the Lives of Children and Families at Risk” (1991)
Ben White was born April 27, 1957, and grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward (Freedman’s Town), Fifth Ward, and Sunny Side, all working-poor black neighborhoods.

Ben White was born April 27, 1957, and grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward (Freedman’s Town), Fifth Ward, and Sunny Side, all working-poor black neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of Ben Desoto.

In 2000 Desoto was awarded for his work with the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, Inc.

However, it is the recognition he has received for his more creative work, after his newspaper career, that he most values. A selection of his later awards follows:

  • Houston Press, Best Art Exhibit and Best Photographer in Houston award from the for his exhibition His Understanding Poverty at City Hall (2009)
  • Houston Arts Alliance grant for The Significance of Making Art
  • “100 Creative People in Houston,” Houston Press (2011)
  • UNESCO Bioethics Global Arts Competition for his project My Mother’s Dying, which to date has exhibited in Hong Kong, Houston, New York City, Mexico City, and Rome (2013)
  • Top Ten Photographers listings: Houston Press, Free Press Houston, Green Mountain Express (2014)

In 2009, the office of Mayor Bill White commissioned City Workers of a Working City, Houston, Texas, which was installed on the third floor of City Hall. The Significance of Making Art was included in the 2009 No Zoning Show at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston and at the Artery (2010).

During his internship at the Houston Post the summer of 1980, Desoto particularly enjoyed his assignment taking photographs at The Island, Houston’s first punk rock venue.

During his internship at the Houston Post the summer of 1980, Desoto particularly enjoyed his assignment taking photographs at The Island, Houston’s first punk rock venue. Photo courtesy of Ben Desoto.

DeSoto’s collection at UH Special Collections totals approximately 44 linear feet, and most materials date from the 1980s through 2016. Five linear feet of the collection came to UH Special Collections organized by Patricia Hernandez of Studio One through the CALL project. Included in this portion are photographs and negatives documenting Houston artists and art events as well as photographs of bands and musicians, primarily at Houston venues. While most of Desoto’s later work has been donated to UH Special Collections, his journalistic work for the Houston Post, as well as a majority of hip hop and materials related to Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, have been donated to the African American Library at the Gregory School.

The collection is currently being processed and a finding aid is not yet available publicly. However, arrangements to use materials in the collection can be made by contacting Performing and Visual Arts curator Mary Manning at mmmanning@uh.edu.

HAHA Fellow Bids Farewell

Department News, Houston & Texas History, Performing & Visual Arts

In August 2013 I was extremely excited to begin my position as the Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow at the University of Houston Libraries Special Collections. I was straight out of my graduate program at the University of Michigan and ready to dive into the field as a professional archivist. I was also thrilled to return to Houston, my hometown and favorite city, and to work with materials that reflected the community where I grew up. Over the following two years, I worked on some amazing projects, developed inspiring working relationships, and gained knowledge and skills that I’ll use throughout my career.

Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow, Stacey Lavender (far right), showcases items from the Main Street Theater Papers at last week's Brown Bag event

Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow, Stacey Lavender (far right), showcases items from the Main Street Theater Records.

The two largest portions of my time here at UH have been dedicated to arranging and describing archival collections and to assisting with the curation of digital projects. I have worked with a wide variety of materials in our Houston Hip Hop, Houston and Texas History, Performing and Visual Arts, and Contemporary Literature collections. I’ll admit that when I started, I was most excited to work with Houston hip hop materials. I felt that hip hop materials were in particularly great need of collecting and that they would resonate particularly strongly with students. I was right! But at the same time, I discovered that each of the collections I worked with, whether they included materials from a German singing club with over 100 years of history, one of the largest regional theatres in the nation, or 1970s and 1980s science fiction and fantasy conventions, documented an important part of our history and held direction connections to the Houston community. I’m proud to have contributed to making so many new materials accessible to our students and researchers, and working with such a diverse array of materials certainly kept me on my toes and made coming to work every day exciting!

I’m grateful that this position also provided many opportunities to work directly with our patrons. Throughout my time at UH I spent about eight hours a week manning the reference desk, and this January I also began serving as contact point for Performing and Visual Arts reference. It’s always my pleasure to help students and researchers find the materials they need. One of the most exciting (and unexpected!) outreach projects I worked on was co-curating the “Nina Vance and the Alley Theatre: A Life’s Work” exhibit with our Architecture & Art Library Coordinator Catherine Essinger. Designing and implementing the exhibit, which ran from October, 2014 to May, 2015, gave me the opportunity to work with people all over the library, across campus, and with former and current Alley Theatre actors and staff. I’ll always remember it as one of my favorite accomplishments here.

UH has also been very supportive of my professional development, which I think is essential for any early-career librarian or archivist. I have attended several conferences and workshops during my time here, and completed my first professional presentation at the Society of Southwest Archivists convention in 2014.

But perhaps my favorite thing about working at the University of Houston Special Collections was the opportunity to work with such an amazing group of colleagues, both in our department and across the library. I’ll miss coming to work with them every day, but I look forward to our paths crossing in the future as I continue my archives career.

The Houston Saengerbund Records

Department News, Digitization, Finding Aids, Performing & Visual Arts
Title page from ledger in the Houston Saengerbund Records (1919)

Title page from ledger in the Houston Saengerbund Records (1919)

The University of Houston Special Collections is happy to announce both the recent publication of the Houston Saengerbund Records in the UH Digital Library and significant additions and revisions made to the finding aid for the related physical collection housed here in Special Collections!

The Houston Saengerbund is a German singing society that has been active in Houston for more than a century and continues to perform at public events throughout Houston and Texas to this day. It was founded in 1883 and was one of many all-male singing organizations which formed in the German communities of Texas during the last half of the 19th century. These local groups were united under Der Deutsch-Texanische Saengerbund (the German-Texan Singers’ League), a regional organization that held biennial meetings and Saengerfeste (Singing Festivals) in various Texas cities. Both the digital collection and physical materials provide insight not only into the activities, performances, membership, and administration of this group, but also into its responses to major events and social changes throughout the last century of American history.

The digital collection consists of five bound ledgers covering the years 1874-1937. In these ledgers you’ll find meeting minutes, financial statements, programs, clippings, and correspondence between the Houston Saengerbund and other German organizations. The materials span the time from the group’s inception, through its growth to over 1000 members in the years before World War I, and to the formation of the Ladies Auxiliary and the Damenchor (Women’s Chorus) in 1937.

Program from the 1983 Texas Saengerfest, held in Houston and also marking the Houston Saengerbund's centennial

Program from the 1983 Texas Saengerfest, held in Houston and also marking the Houston Saengerbund’s centennial

The updated finding aid describes physical materials dating from 1874 to present. Here you’ll find songbooks and event materials, administrative records, legal files, financial records, and publications from all points in the group’s history. Of particular interest is the effect of anti-German sentiment that developed during the World Wars. With the onset of World War II, the Saengerbund members changed the name of the group to “The Houston Singing Society,” quit their primary activity of singing German songs, and began keeping minutes in English due to their concern about arousing anti-German sentiment. It wasn’t until after the war ended that the club members restored both their singing and their name.

The events mentioned above are just a couple of the points of interest to be found in the rich and storied history of The Houston Saengerbund. Check out the digital collection or visit us here in Special Collections to find out more!

Main Street Theater Brown Bag

Department News, Performing & Visual Arts
Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow, Stacey Lavender (far right), showcases items from the Main Street Theater Records at last week's Brown Bag event

Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow, Stacey Lavender (far right), showcases items from the Main Street Theater Records at last week’s Brown Bag event

Last week Stacey Lavender, Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow for the University of Houston Special Collections, continued our Brown Bag Series by hosting the UH Libraries’ faculty and staff in an up close and personal look at the recently processed Main Street Theater Records.  The Main Street Theater Records, filled with materials related to productions throughout its history, fundraising activities, and so much more, provide a telling view behind the curtain of Houston’s theater community and trace the evolution of Main Street from those heady, upstart days of the 1970s to the new century which sees Main Street and its multiple stages as an essential pillar in Houston theater.

Production posters on display from the Main Street Theater Records

Production posters on display from the Main Street Theater Records

In her presentation of the materials, Ms. Lavender highlighted the history of Main Street Theater, the role it has played in developing artistic talent, and the relatively unheralded but significant work done in the areas of education and outreach with the city’s youth.  Following the presentation attendees participated in a Q&A, touching upon the challenges and rewards experienced in processing the collection, the delicate balance between access and privacy, the exciting possibilities of Main Street Theater as a living collection, and its potential for future research.  Attendees were also given an opportunity to view and peruse items from the collection including production posters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and children’s fan mail addressed to Main Street, all culled by Ms. Lavender to highlight some of the treasures the collection holds.

If you are interested in getting your own up close and personal look at Main Street Theater, or perhaps any of our other Performing Arts collections, do come visit us at your earliest convenience.

Main Street Theater Records – New Finding Aid Published

Finding Aids, Performing & Visual Arts
poster from Beyond the Fringe, one of Main Street Theater's earliest productions

poster from Beyond the Fringe, one of Main Street Theater’s earliest productions

The University of Houston Special Collections is excited to announce that the finding aid for the Main Street Theater Records has been published and is now available online!

Main Street Theater has been an important part of Houston’s vibrant performing arts community for almost forty years. Led by founding director Rebecca Greene Udden, the company staged their first production in the summer of 1975. As the name suggests, their first home was located on Main Street at Autry House, a community center belonging to the Episcopalian Diocese. The theater has grown steadily since then, first moving into a larger 92-seat space on Times Boulevard in Rice Village in 1981, and later adding a second, even larger, Chelsea Market location. The Main Street Theater is currently in its 39th MainStage season and its 34th Theater for Youth Season.

poster from the world premiere production of What a Night!

poster from the world premiere production of What a Night!

The Main Street Theater Records provide insight into the company’s activities both on stage and behind the scenes. The first 12 boxes of the collection consist of materials like playbills, scripts, posters, flyers, and photographs, documenting the theater’s MainStage productions as well as productions that are part of its Theater for Youth program. The collection also contains substantial amounts of  financial records, meeting minutes from the Board of Directors and various other committees, donor correspondence, and materials related to the planning of benefits and fundraisers.

Take some time and peruse the finding aid, or better yet come visit us at Special Collections and see the history of this Houston theater for yourself!

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